Night Train is a novel of mystery. The basic mystery concerns the death of Jennifer Rockwell: Her father, Tom Rockwell, a high-ranking police official, refuses to believe that Jennifer committed suicide. Rather than going through official channels, he calls on detective Mike Hoolihan. Although Hoolihan now works in the asset forfeiture division, Rockwell supervised her as her squad supervisor while she worked in homicide, and they remain friends.
More subtle mysteries surface in Martin Amis’s telling of the story. He deliberately refuses to identify where the story takes place, stating only that it is a “second-tier American city.” Although he is free in giving precinct numbers and street names, only someone familiar with the city—if it exists other than in Amis’s imagination—would be able to guess its identity. The year of the action is never stated, but the days and dates correspond to 1990, and that fits with other details. Through Jennifer Rockwell’s department chair and through her boyfriend, Trader Faulkner, Amis even touches on mysteries of the universe, how it formed and how long it will last. The characters themselves are also mysteries, and the story unfolds more as a revelation of their inner secrets than as a murder investigation. Through Hoolihan, who narrates the story through her journal, Amis doles out tidbits of the characters’ lives and motivations, always raising more questions than he answers. The novel ends with two large mysteries. Although Jennifer Rockwell’s case is considered closed, Hoolihan provides different answers to different people. Then there is the question of Hoolihan herself: After the soul-searching involved in this case, will she allow herself to slip back into a life of alcoholism and abuse?
Night Train is also a novel of imagery, with the strongest image being the night train itself. It is a real phenomenon, a noisy interruption of Hoolihan’s sleep in her low-rent apartment. Hoolihan owns a cassette tape with eight versions of the rhythm-and-blues song of the same name, but she shows her attachment to the image and its deeper meanings in less concrete ways. The night train is symbolic of the dark side of life and of death itself, and Hoolihan herself says that suicide is the night train. As Hoolihan finds out how Jennifer Rockwell came to board the night train, she reveals her own past in her journal—molestation by her father, a series of abusive boyfriends, and alcoholism that, although in abeyance, has left her with liver disease. As she probes the circumstances of Rockwell’s death—the death of a woman who seemingly had everything to live for—she questions the very meaning of existence.
Amis treads familiar territory here. Several of his previous works have explored the underclass and examined the emptiness of many lives. He is noted for his satirical treatments of human values. Although satire is absent in this novel, he again shows a character, Hoolihan, whose life deteriorated into alcoholism and who by her own admission was, before her rehabilitation, as likely to punch the next man at the bar as to take him to bed. She has reformed, but the danger of a lapse is ever present. Her life is contrasted with that of Jennifer Rockwell: a privileged childhood versus molestation by the father followed by foster homes; stunning natural beauty versus flat features and the dyed-blonde look of a politicized feminist; femininity versus a five-foot, ten-inch woman of 180 pounds engaged in the masculine world of police work (Hoolihan ponders her masculinity and femininity, and the psychology of a father who gives a boy’s name to a daughter he will later rape); and the intellectual work of an astrophysicist versus the morbid work of a homicide detective. In Success (1978), Amis similarly contrasted the aristocratic Gregory with his foster brother Terry, a physically unattractive resident of the slums with low self-esteem.
Amis’s previous novels show his literary development that led to Night Train. In Other People: A Mystery Story (1981), Amis turned away from his earlier satires, providing more philosophical depth. The protagonist suffers total amnesia and gradually discovers her identity. In a similar manner, Hoolihan seems to find herself as she delves into Jennifer Rockwell’s life. In Money: A Suicide Note, protagonist John Self is wealthy but uneducated and lacking in culture. He seeks culture but does not know how to get it and thus remains dissatisfied. Jennifer Rockwell, though cultured and educated, shows the strongest possible evidence of dissatisfaction with life through her apparent decision to end it.
Night Train is told through Hoolihan’s journal of the case. In the book’s opening, an introduction that precedes her journal, she states that this is her worst case. She considers it solved, and it is closed, but...
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